The question is, why are Cuban boxers so good?
One reason for the unusual success in men's boxing, and sports in general, may be that Cubans identify sports talent at a young age. Potential athletes are "nurtured" at special schools where athletics are more rigorously explored.
"No athlete in the world lives in a place more dedicated to discovering, nurturing and celebrating great athletes," wrote S.L. Price in the prologue to Pitching Around Fidel. "If you are a dirt-poor, ten-year-old phenom buried somewhere in Cuba's deepest backwater, you will be found. You will win. You will be a national hero."
Another reason for Cuba's success in boxing may be the contributions of previous champions. Generally speaking, today's Cuban champions are tomorrow's trainers, able to pass on their years of experience to younger generations. (In Cuba, boxing trainers are also required to have an academic degree that involves 7 years of schooling.)
And yet another reason may be training techniques and ideologies brought to the island by the great Soviet coach Andrei Chervorenko in the early 1960s. He was "pulled back," some pundits claim, as soon as Cuba started winning more tournaments than the Soviets.
Experts say that Cuban boxers are usually older and more experienced than their international counterparts (although Teófilo Stevenson was twenty years old when he won his first heavyweight title at the 1972 Olympics, taking all his bouts by knockout). Since the option of professional boxing is not open to them, Cubans stay amateurs for their complete careers, accounting for the age advantage criticism.
Cubans also have a tendency to "slim down" into their weight class. "The Cuban system chisels its talent," wrote Price, "pushing the fighter to drop weight and squeeze their power into lighter weight classes."
It goes without saying that most amateurs all over the world don't have the benefit of state-funded training and living expenses, as the Cubans do.
Like baseball players who see the opportunity to be well compensated by turning professional, boxers have also defected to the U.S., although in smaller numbers. This is not often an easy decision, as families and friendships and broken indefinitely.
The fact that in Cuba, boxers and ballplayers are the heroes of modern society doesn't make the decision to defect any easier.
"My dream is to be like Felix Savón"
"My dream is to be like Felix Savón," says 13-year old schoolboy Rulan Carbonell before his bout at the Rafael Trejo gym in Old Havana. His coach, Hector Vinent, was the welterweight Olympic champion in 1992 and 1996. Athletes are like rock stars, loved and worshiped by the masses, given good seats at restaurants and theaters, and hounded for autographs wherever they go. There are also a few government perks, though nothing like what a typical NBA player is used to.
Some athletes completely support the Cuban revolution. Others are more ambivalent. Expectations of them are high on both sides of the Florida Straits. On one side they're supposed to love the revolution that made their participation in the sport possible. On the other side they're supposed to hate the revolution that restricts their freedom.
Teófilo Stevenson, a heavyweight with 3 Olympic gold medals, shared his views when a match between him and Muhammad Ali was being planned in the late 1970s. "What's a million dollars," he asked, "compared to five million Cubans who love me?" A similar story is told about a $10 million offer from Don King to have Felix Savón fight Mike Tyson. Neither fight ever took place.
"It was Stevenson who never wanted to change," Castro is quoted in conversation with New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson, "and that's why he's a hero of the revolution."
And therein lie the options faced by a high-profile athlete in Cuba; a hero of the revolution, or a wealthy athlete in the USA-slash-traitor.
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